WeAreSC reader questions for the mailbag this week hit on defensive edge containment, special teams, injuries, offensive line issues, Markese Stepp, adjustments on both sides of the ball, and a look ahead to USC’s big game at Washington.
Q: Are you seeing anything in practice that looks like we are concerned about edge containment?
A: Anything we can see in practice this season pretty much extends to stretching and maybe a couple individual drills. But from what we’re hearing after practice, the players and coaches are absolutely acknowledging that it’s an issue they need to improve. I’m sure there are some wrinkles defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast can implement to get that fixed, but he’s not going to do anything to take away from the interior defense. That has been evident since the beginning of spring ball, that USC was going to shore up the middle of the defense and not allow themselves to get gashed straight ahead like they did so many times last year. Beyond that, it seems like players and coaches have said it’s about developing faster recognition, taking better angles, tackling better in space and just working faster to get to the ball when it goes outside. They’re definitely aware of it and working to improve. We’ll see how much change there is on Saturday, because Washington is definitely going to try hitting the edges against USC.
Q: What is going on with our recruiting? We are close to last out of all P5 programs, and have missed on virtually every blue chip player in the west the past 2 years.
A: There is just so little momentum right now because recruits and their families have legitimate questions about how long Clay Helton and this staff will be at USC. This is a massive issue for USC, because if the Trojans aren’t recruiting at an elite level (certainly at the top of the Pac-12 and among the top 10 programs nationally) something is wrong. But this is a Pac-12 problem as well. If the Pac-12 continues to let the national narrative write them out of the playoff conversation two or three weeks into the season, it’s no better than a Group of Five conference. And elite recruits don’t commit to Group of Five teams. Right now, elite West Coast prospect see going to the SEC/Big Ten/Big XII/Clemson/Notre Dame as having more of a shot to play for a national championship and go to the NFL than staying in the Pac-12. That’s a Pac-12 problem, but that’s absolutely a USC problem. Just like Clemson is doing with the ACC right now, if USC is where they should be, the Trojans can carry the Pac-12 by itself in a way that other conference programs can’t.
Q: Any injury updates on our banged up secondary?
A: At this point I’d be surprised if Talanoa Hufanga is available against Washington, and I think it could be close with Olaijah Griffin as well. My guess is that we’ll see Chris Steele and Isaac Taylor-Stuart at cornerback, Greg Johnson and nickelback, and Isaiah Pola-Mao and Chase Williams at safety. CJ Pollard will be the first safety off the bench, and beyond that, we’ll see if the coaches turn to true freshman Briton Allen or walk-on Jordan McMillan. At cornerback, that’s a real question because you just don’t have many options. I could see Williams going to nickel and bumping Johnson outside if Pollard comes in at safety, just to give one of the outside starters a breather. But if USC has to go to the bench at cornerback and brings in one of the other true freshmen, Washington will absolutely look to take advantage of that.
We’ll get a firmer update on Hufanga and Griffin (as well as Kedon Slovis) following today’s practice.
Q: Can you give us an update on LB’s Jordan Iosefa, Abdul Malik-McClain, and Elijah Winston? All were expected to be key players in the defensive rotation .
A: It sounds like Helton would like to try to get Iosefa back for the Notre Dame game. If he’s on the field at all during the bye week practices, that would be a really good sign. Malik McClain is participating in practice again. I’m not sure where he is in terms of game readiness, but I would imagine if he’s not fully ready this week, he will be for Notre Dame as well. Winston still hasn’t returned to practice.
Q: With supposedly a shorter playbook what is the cause of missed assignments by the O-line to cause 2 qbs to go out hurt. Is it the rb not picking up the blitz, line call misses or just whiffs
A: We heard the word “miscommunication” a lot this week in practice to explain what happened on a few plays against Utah. Whether it was Brett Neilon not hearing the quarterback or another offensive lineman not hearing Neilon, it seems there was some sort of break in the chain from the play call coming down from the booth to everybody on the field hearing it correctly. That’s obviously something that needs to be corrected immediately.
But on the play where Slovis was injured, you can see Jalen McKenzie get off the ball to run block and he just gets beat immediately with a swim move by Leki Fotu. If McKenzie is in normal pass protection or if Slovis goes through with the run play, he doesn’t take that hit.
Q: Almost every game, our offense plays lights out for the first half of the first quarter, and then the wheels come off and we struggle the entire rest of the game to match that level of efficiency. Why is that? I understand that the first 15 or so plays are scripted. Maybe we should script the first 60 plays (and I say that only half in jest).
A: Just other teams making adjustments on defense. I think that’s what we’ll learn about offensive coordinator Graham Harrell this year. It’s obvious that he can put a quarterback-friendly system in place and he understands how to get the ball to playmakers. Can he go punch for punch with opposing defensive coordinators and keep his offense out in front of whatever adjustments are coming? He’s hamstrung a little bit now with his third choice at quarterback, but Matt Fink proved he can do enough to win football games. But this offense is talented enough that we absolutely shouldn’t see the same second-half lulls this year that this team was known for in 2018. The season-opener not withstanding, they have found their way to important late-game scoring drives so far this season.
Q: Any word on a AD?
A: Nothing official yet on a new athletic director. USC did make its first administrative hire yesterday, as interim athletic director Dave Roberts brought back Paul Perrier.
Perrier worked in USC compliance for six years, working with Roberts. For the last four years, Perrier has served as a senior associate athletic director and chief compliance officer at Rutgers.
Q: Does coach Harrell have a conventional screen play in the offense? One that helps slow down the d-rushers?
A: Harrell definitely has a few change of pace plays, and we’ve seen a shovel pass used this year. Ultimately, if the ball is coming out quickly, the pass rush doesn’t matter much. Obviously Utah get credit for getting to Slovis and knocking him out of the game, but that’s a really great Utah defensive line, and it never really felt like they affected the passing game much.
Q: If this question was already answered I didn’t see it. When did the Trojans decide to have St. Brown return punts instead of Vaughns, and what is the thinking behind it? Not that I have any problem with it.
Also I haven’t noticed Velus playing much if at all at receiver, and he is certainly not the most inspiring kickoff returner I’ve ever seen. Seems like kind of an odd situation, what with him being in the portal and all.
Appreciate your thoughts on SC’s returners. Thanks Erik.
A: St. Brown was back for a punt against BYU, and was the sole punt returner against Utah. I think he gives the Trojans a little more explosive ability than Vaughns.
Tough to say Velus Jones isn’t a great kick returner when he’s already taken one back 100 yards this season, but I understand the sentiment. I think he’ll be the guy back there for the rest of the year though, unless they want to give Kenan Christon a shot for the last four games. I’m a little surprised we haven’t seen more of him as a receiver because it felt like he had a really great fall camp, but nobody is playing over those top three guys.
Q: Although I was impressed with the effort of the defense last game, overall they still seem unsure and scattered as unit. Is this the result of individual position groups (i.e. LBers) failing to play assignment football, or is it more a product of Clancy’s schemes? Under Clancy it seems like as a whole we never play sound defense, at some point I have to feel it’s the scheme and DC more than the players.
A: I think not tackling in practice hurts the defense overall. I also think there’s such an emphasis on not allowing plays to get up the middle, that guys might be half a step slower getting outside, because they’re making sure that they’re right in starting to go laterally. I don’t know if my expectations are just set too low, but I’ve actually been fine for the most part in what the defense has done this year. They obviously have to start finishing sacks and bringing guys down when they seemingly have them corralled in the backfield, but most of the time they’re playing nickel and they aren’t really giving up any big passes. If it’s bend-but-don’t-break, that’s what they’ve done for the most part this season. That being said, there are at least another couple of levels this defense can raise its game, and if it doesn’t start happening this weekend, they could be in trouble.
Q: Is Markese Stepp not 100% ? There is no way he is not starting if he is close to 100%. We all knew from spring training that he is the best RB. In my opinion, Markese should be #1, followed by VaVae and Stephen in depth chart. Who is making decision on running back depth chart? Helton or Jinks?
A: I thought it was interesting that on the TV broadcast of the game, Brock Huard specifically mentioned Stepp needing to clean up fumbling and get his pass blocking right. Now, is that coming from Huard watching the (very limited) reps Stepp has gotten this year and last and making that claim? Or is that something he heard during the coaching interviews in game prep? Stepp fumbled once against BYU, but I’d hardly call that an ongoing issue. At this point, that’s all I can point to about why Stepp isn’t playing. He’s definitely a great closer when you need to pick up short yardage late in the game. It just still feels to me like if you polled an opposing defense about which USC running back they’d like to take on, Stepp would get the fewst votes.
Q: I know it’s early but I was really expecting a Top 25 Offense this year yet USC is ranked 51 st in scoring behind 4 other Pac 12 teams. Is it tempo? IMHO they are just not going fast enough to establish the rhythm that give the Air Raid an advantage and I’m still seeing the QB looking over to the sideline for plays. What gives?
A: Harrell said he’s been okay with the tempo so far. It’s not a great excuse, but I’m curious as to how many of those top-25 offenses are playing with their No. 3 quarterback. That being said, I do think there is a disconnect so far with what Harrell talked about wanting to see from the offense and what we’re actually getting. And I think some of that can be pinned on the defense. When you aren’t forcing any three-and-outs, you’re going to get blasted in time of possession. And when that happens, the offense can’t really get into a rhythm.
Q: Why are the Trojans not good on the road?…..and …. Is, that teams seem to be getting handled the week after they play SC, a sign that the team is much more physical than recent years?.. still no discipline.
A: The old adage about road games is that you have to pack your defense and your running game. If you had running game, passing game, defense, and special teams as four options, those two are probably Nos. 3 and 4. The BYU game was pretty obvious that the turnover battle heavily contributed to that loss. But last year, I think there just wasn’t anything the offense could hang their hat on as something they do well. I think this Washington game will tell us a ton about this USC team. Now this group knows the pitfalls of a road game with the BYU experience. If they can’t get up for the Huskies, it’s time to reassess what goes into a USC road trip.
Q: After Matt Fink puts in another solid performance in the win over Washington on Saturday, does this…ahem…head coach prudently play the hot hand and ride Matt into South Bend?
A: If USC comes back with a win, that will be the $64,000 question. Clay Helton has said repeatedly that a quarterback can only lose his job due to injury or ineffectiveness. It makes a ton of sense to stick with Fink (again, assuming your win and solid performance), but if I had to guess, I think Slovis gets the job back.
Q: is the Trojan Oline capable of opening some holes for RBs to run through the UW defense? What does it take for the Trojans to dominate and come out winners in Saturday’s matchup vs UW? Your final score prediction? Thanks.
A: I understand not being able to run against the Utah defense. Not to the extent they were shut down, but I get not going for 100 yards against the Utes. I think if USC can’t run against Washington, it could be a long day for the offense. This is not a great Washington defense front compared to some of the groups the Huskies have had in recent years. But they’ll be inspired by what BYU and Utah did to the USC offensive line. I think USC needs to force Washington to adjust. The fact that BYU was able to run the same defense for an entire game against USC was not a good thing for the Trojans. If Washington can come out in their base look against an air raid offense and sit in that for four quarters, they have the defensive backs to at least match up better with the USC receivers than Utah.
Like Utah, this is another head/heart game for me when it comes to a pick. If Hufanga and Griffin are out, that shifts things so dramatically to the Washington passing attack. The fact that it’s at Washington is not a good thing for USC. And I think USC needs better play from Fink than they got last week. The numbers were good and it’s a tremendous story, but there were some jump ball touchdowns that better defenders come down with or knock away, and a bad interception in terms of situation/timing/throw. I think Fink can be cleaner than that, and I think getting a week to prepare will be really helpful.
So my head says something like 31-24 Washington. But the beauty of writing here is that I never actually have to pick against the Trojans. So I’ll take the same score but the other way, and USC wins it with a late defensive stop.